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Getty on Google: It’s all about traffic, duh

Competition, not copyright this time

Photo giant Getty Images has had enough – it has filed an antitrust complaint in Europe against Google. And the reasoning behind the action is more subtle than readers might think. Getty Images' VP Jonathan Lockwood explained why.

Getty’s action isn’t a copyright dispute, he points out. It isn’t about piracy, rights, or right-clicking to save. It is about the ability to build a business on the internet, a business that needs traffic.

Europe’s Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager devoted much of the time she spent justifying the Commission’s Android problem on just this question. Monopolies aren’t illegal, Vestager said, and there may be consumer benefits of a free platform, but these must weighed against the ability to build a competing business on the internet against entrenched monopoly. This is where Getty’s complaint is so interesting.

Getty Images is a blue chip name, has 60 million images and a superior search product to Google, so if anyone can build a digital business, you’d think it would be Getty Images.

But Google has built the equivalent of a sweet shop in front of Getty’s store - and gives the sweets away for free, monetising it by advertising and mining your personal data as you pass through Google. The public never gets to see Getty’s sweet store. Meanwhile Getty has bills to pay, but Google uses the work for free.

“Google’s market dominance is a factor,” says Lockwood. “If we’re not getting the traffic or the opportunity to engage, then we’re not raising royalties to pay to our contributors,” says Lockwood.

In previous battles with authors, publishers and newspapers, Google has made the point that Google drives traffic to the source: sending those who see the snippet to the newspaper site, or to a bookstore to buy the book. But it’s going to be hard for Google to make a credible similar argument this time. You just wouldn’t know there was a licensing business behind the image on Google Images. Traffic is oxygen, and Google’s own imaging product makes it much harder for a superior product to get any air. Google is crippling the market for licensed images so you stay inside the Google properties.

“It’s all about free markets, and not allowing a dominant player to coerce and unilaterally impose their policies. They have none of their own content,” says Lockwood.

The move was prompted by Google’s decision to show full screen "slideshow" reproductions of Getty’s images without a licence.

Getty’s dilemma is that Google’s gatekeeper dominance is so extensive that blocking Google from using Getty’s images would be suicidal. Interestingly, Google wrote out the suicide note for Getty to sign.

More than one reader skimmed the story, and grabbed the wrong end of the stick, blaming Getty for the problem:

“It is Getty's fault for not taking the proper steps to protect their intellectual property,” argued one reader. “Bit like leaving your front door open and moaning when you get burgled,” writes another.

“We could use robots.txt to opt out, and shield our images – and that is exactly what Google said to us when we complained,” Lockwood explains. “But it’s no kind of feasible choice. Those images would still surface, and traffic would go to the infringer’s site. We need the traffic.”

Nor is watermarking images a remedy. Google punishes image owners who do.

“They penalise people who try to protect their content. There is then a ‘mismatch penalty’ for the site: you have to show the same one to Google Images that you own. If you don’t, you disappear.”

What does Getty want, then?

It’s not about damages. “We’re hoping for behavioural remedies,” says Lockwood. Even if Getty could rewrite copyright law it wouldn’t help much, he adds. Google is expert at finding loopholes, and lobbying, and even with the political will it would take years.

Victim-shaming is nothing new in "digital rights" culture. It’s almost an unwritten rule that in a dispute it’s always the rightsholder’s fault. “The dumb shopkeeper left the sweeties out on the counter so I couldn’t help stealing them! Sweeties are a human right!”

Getty’s superior search technology incorporates its PicScout acquisition. It works a bit like Shazam, identifying an image from a fragment. You can try it yourself and see how well it does. By comparison, general purpose image search engines like Google and Bing are in the Stone Age.

Getty has tried other initiatives to promote its business. Two years ago, Getty introduced millions of images available for free use so bloggers and other non-commercial sites could as an alternative to right-click-copy. It’s an embedded widget that tracks use, and ensures the photographer is credited.

So this is purely a market complaint, about whether the market can decide what kind of products it gets, or whether Google is the ultimate arbiter.

In the case of Google Books, you can either read disjointed snippets or attempt to buy a frequently unobtainable book. There’s no middle ground between the two: researchers can’t use a metered product, because it doesn’t exist. But here, Google can’t stop Getty Images launching an image-licensing site, but it can deprive it of the oxygen it needs to survive. The Commission will take into account whether that’s fair. ®

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